The Week The Earth Stood Still

How the Icelandic volcano's eruption impacted healthcare. 

I have had a recurring thought during the past week in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption on Iceland.  Remember Klaatu?  He was the mythical figure in the 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, who came to planet earth warning us about dabbling with nuclear power. We got the message on a different topic when just eight days ago one of the world's least well-known volcanoes in Iceland – Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced: EY-ya-fyat-lah-YOH-kuht) – began to make its presence known, and nearly all of Europe stood still in its wake. Covering nearly all of Europe, the volcano's thick ash closed the continent's airways while stranding millions in what was the largest air-traffic shutdown the world has experienced since World War II.  Even the aftermath of 9/11 only lasted three days!  But, aside from the massive number of people who were stranded throughout the world, Eyjafjallajökull impacted virtually every aspect of the world economy and has even affected healthcare.

While the television networks and newspapers carried stories on how the major airlines were reportedly losing upwards of $200 million a day with the shutdown, little has been said about the effect on healthcare.  Unbeknownst to most people, the supply of human organs has become a global network, from simple blood transfusions to replacement organs.  Gaining access to these critical resources is often a make-or-break difference for patients in life-or-death situations.  Due to the closure of many airports across Europe, the supply of organs for transplant surgery has been dramatically affected.  In fact, as of Tuesday evening, at least 16 patients in the United Kingdom were already at risk of complications ensuing from a lack of access to a transplant organ. With the delivery of organs, bone marrow, and transfusions halted throughout the world, coupled with additional fact that surgeons were stuck at airports, the volcanic eruption has posed a logistical nightmare for patients and providers alike.

As a result, such organizations such as Eurotransplant, one of the largest non-profit organ transplant services in Europe, have been forced to deliver their much needed medical supplies by other means, most often by ground transport – a process that has prolonged the movement of these items by countless hours.  In a field where the shortest amount of time from the point of availability to the point of transplant is critical for offering viable tissue, it is also crucial because the time factor affects patient's lives.  Time is certainly of the essence in transplants of any type.

The pharmaceutical industry has also felt the impact of the eruption. While general stockpiles of prescriptions with long shelf lives have not been affected by the transportation meltdown in Europe, drug supply experts warned that drugs with short shelf lives would be in danger if the air shutdown lasted much longer. 

Interestingly enough, the preferred means of transportation for most drug manufacturers in Europe has historically been through maritime carriers because of lower costs associated with that type of transport.  It just shows that even in the strangest of natural disasters, industry standards can shield corporations from financial loss. Just look at drug companies such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer that have had very few problems in the wake of Eyjafjallajökull.

Apart from the short term impact on air travel and transportation, the underlying reality for healthcare is that the world is a much more interconnected and linked place than ever before. This last week illustrated how we are all connected by showing that a volcanic eruption in Iceland can stop a patient from receiving her bone marrow in England while simultaneously effecting salmon fishing in New Zealand, flower distribution from South America, and causing a work stoppage at automotive plants in Japan.  All these examples are real, and although seemingly unrelated, they were, in fact, interconnected to each other because of the volcano. In only seven days, the world saw globalization at both its best and its worst, depending on how you look at the issue.

Thankfully for the world economy, many flights are now returning to normal in England and other parts of Europe.  While it is interesting to consider the impact of the entire world screeching to a halt, the natural disaster of Eyjafjallajökull has touched the lives of the entire planet in ways that will be revealed further in the coming months and years.  The global economy is not subsiding and is only strengthening over time.  Our interconnectedness is more than concept.  It is a reality that is affecting everyone, everywhere. 

Like Klaatu did in the movie- Eyjafjallajökull has let us know that we have been forewarned…

About the Author: Kevin Fickenscher